Monday, December 3, 2018

The Science Fiction Legacy of Marvel

Over the last couple weeks, I might have sounded a bit bullish about Marvel Science Stories and its effect on science fiction. This pulp by Red Circle, the parent company for today's Marvel Comics, certainly brought science fiction to the eyes of more publishers than just Street & Smith. However, I will disagree with Isaac Asimov's assessment of the magazine. Marvel Science Stories was not a spicy; it was a weird menace pulp.

Weird menace was a skin and sadism genre that sparked an increasing backlash by the public. To build upon its thrills, weird menace featured stories of younger and younger women in impending peril. Red Circle as a line reveled in these stories of torture and porn. Public outrage built, and teens and children stopped reading pulps. When a Red Circle pulp ran a story where a crowd of leering men crucified a twelve-year old, with descriptions that bordered on the lascivious, the government stepped in, banned weird menace, and censored the pulps.

The weird manace tale did leave an imprint on the development of the genre. Even as early as the 1930s, science fiction strove for respectability. During the Campbelline Revolution, Jack Williamson recounts that”science fiction had to be pure as snow”. Fandom wanted no trace of weird menace in its science fiction.  And the censors in place after weird menace’s fall kept sexual content out of Amazing, Astounding, and their competitors. Or as much as possible, for:
It became a grim or frivolous game for some of the writers who were, of course, not fools, to see what they could slip by without editorial knowledge or consent. One famously was able to get through J. W. Campbell and Kay Tarrant a description of a tomcat as a “ball-bearing mousetrap” and Asimov’s 1951 “Hostess” in Galaxy reeked of the perversity of sexual attraction between an alien diplomat and a repressed academic’s wife but these triumphs were few and, more to the point, unnoticed. If they had attracted wide attention, the writers would have paid the price.
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 523-528). Baen Books.
Barry Malzberg further explains in Breakfast in the Ruins that “as late as 1965, science fiction was still a genre which in the main denied the existence, let alone the extent, of human sexuality” and that it wasn’t until “the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, [that] novels of great or relative explicitness (Silverberg’s Dying Inside, The Second Trip, and The World Inside, my own Beyond Apollo) bore the label of category science fiction.”

In short, fan and government backlash against weird menace removed sex as a topic of science fiction for over thirty years, until the rise of the New Wave--who then ran the topic into the ground with as much excess as possible.

As for authors who associated with Red Circle and Marvel Science Stories? Henry Kuttner contributed "Time Trap" to Marvel Science Stories, a move that tainted him from then on. In the eyes of many fans, Kuttner was nothing more than a smut merchant from that point onward. He became the second of the Campbelline grandmasters to be scrubbed out of the popular history by fannish contempt.

So the real legacy of Marvel Comics in science fiction is a record of three decades of censorship and the erasure of one of pulp fiction's best from the popular canon.


  1. I had never heard of a problem with weird menace stories before. I tend to like detective stuff that deals with weird menace. Are there any commonly available resources that discuss what happened in depth? BTW, I like Kuttner's work.

    I wonder if something like this, changing the style of Sci-Fi, is the reason I can't stand anything after the 50's or so; too serious for me. Give me more Star Wars please. I prefer my Science more Fantastic and less Realistic.

    Side Note: Imagine my surprise when I found that pulp Buck F-ing Rogers isn't in space. W.T.F!

    Carry On.

    1. I've been drawing heavily from Blood N Thunder's Guide to Pulp Fiction.

    2. Blood 'N' Thunder... Lovely, there goes all my spending cash.

    3. So I picked up Blood 'n' Thunder Presents the Penny-a-Word Brigade. It is packed full of essays by the pulp writers themselves, written during the height of the pulps. I gladly paid $80 for The Graduate Fictioneer by Bedford-Jones after reading Secrets of the Worlds' Best-Selling Writer which discusses Erle Stanley Gardner. I can't get enough about writing for the pulps.

      Maybe I'm in the minority, but I had never heard of Blood 'n' Thunder. I wish I had known about Blood 'n' Thunder years ago, though I'm glad I know about in now. Better late than never. Thank You.

  2. Maybe we should be looking at this from a more generational perspective. The Baby Boom shifted markets all over the place. The trend you discuss here looks like a scrubbing of sex in the 50s and 60s to placate parents worried about their kids' exposure to skeevy SFF. Then, once the Boomers were old enough to choose their own stuff, they went whole hog on the sexy times, burned out by the nineties and turned the market towards old man thinky pieces and self-congratulatory back patting.

    Not sure, just spitballing.